MOSCOW - This year’s Eurovision song contest, hosted in Kyiv, saw Portugal crowned the winner.
But Russian officials cried foul even before the competition, as Ukraine banned their last-minute entry of contestant Yulia Samoylova, a singer who is disabled and uses a wheelchair.
"We were all very much surprised,” says chairwoman of the Moscow branch of Russia’s Disabled People Society Nadezhda Lobanova-who is herself in a wheelchair. “We don't know how they treat their disabled, but it seems to me we wouldn't have done anything like this. But we were surprised. And we wondered whether they'd let in a healthy singer or whether it was was done only to the disabled person."
Instead, Samoylova performed on May 9 for Russia’s World War II Victory Day celebration in Russia-annexed Crimea. Her performing in Crimea in 2015 got her blacklisted from entering Ukraine in the first place.
Critics say Russia’s choice of a disabled contestant, while knowing she would be banned for breaking Ukrainian law, was a cynical move.
"It was not just tactless, it was so unfair,” says translator and disability expert Veronica Ivanova-who is also disabled and uses a wheelchair. “It was cruel to use a disabled person in their political games knowing in advance the risks. Hoping that the disability would melt the hearts of the European Union and, especially performing in Ukraine, I think that was very cruel."
It's not the first political scandal involving the Eurovision contest and Crimea. Last year's winning song "1944", by Crimean Tatar Susana Jamaladynova, was about Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s forced deportation of Crimean Tatars. It was seen as a subtle rebuke of Russia’s current occupation of Crimea.
But Russian claims of Kyiv’s discrimination against disabled are even more dubious as Russia itself still struggles to provide for disabled people. It took five years for Ivanova to get a proper ramp installed at her apartment building.
“It takes a long time due to bureaucratic processes but, in the end, it's possible,” she says. “In the provinces, I am scared even to imagine how to do it.”
Despite a handicapped accessible sign, for Ivanova to enter her local grocery store requires serious help as there is an impassable step before a ramp that is too steep to safely climb in a wheelchair.
Forcing disabled access is still a challenge, grants Lobanova, as owners don’t want to pay for properly equipping their businesses, and apartment buildings require permission from all residents. “That's rather ridiculous. But often the residents and especially landlords do not understand,” she says. “So there is a problem with the installation of stairlifts because permission must be received from all residents of the building.”
But Moscow has seen a lot of progress since she started working for disabled people three decades ago.
“There were no disabled in Moscow because there was no possibility to move around. Only those who had their own cars had such an opportunity. It was hard to find employment. It was hard to get education. There was no access,” says Lobanova.
About 85 percent of Moscow is accessible for the disabled, she says, a much higher rate than most Russian regions.
Today, vehicles and sports for Russia's disabled are available in most cities, while education and jobs come easier, though not without problems
"In Moscow it is not such an acute problem as a lot of enlightenment work is carried out among employers by various social bodies,” says Ivanova. “In the regions, it's worse."
The controversy over Russia’s Eurovision contestant has had one positive outcome, says Ivanova, it raised more discussion on the plight of Russia’s disabled.
Olga Pavlova contributed to this report.